May 30, 2011
It is unfortunate but true that on this Memorial Day -- when we pause to honor those Americans who have fought the good fights against British colonialism, the sin of slavery and the menace of fascism -- U.S. troops are currently bogged down in a quagmire of George Bush's creation in Afghanistan and an continuing mission of Bush's creation in Iraq.
Appallingly, Barack Obama has maintained Bush's undeclared wars of occupation. And he has now steered the United States into another fight with Libya.
Everything about these undeclared and open-ended conflicts is at odds with the vision of the founders of the American experiment -- who generally shared James Madison's view that "permanent war" posed the greatest threat to liberty -- and the serious intent of wars against kings, slaveholders and fascists.
Soldiers fight wars because of a sense of duty. And the soldiers involved in America's current conflicts are good men and women. But these are not good fights.
Nor are their necessary fights for the U.S. military.
It is for this reason that veterans of these undeclared wars of whim have organized so well and wisely to end them, in groups such as Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is mounting a Memorial Day campaign to highlight the wrongheaded practice of deploying traumatized troops, and the currently organizing Afghanistan Veterans Against the War project.
There are arguments to be made, some of them sound, some of them not, that people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have reasons to be fighting. But the fights are their own -- not America's.
John Quincy Adams summed the sentiment up 190 years ago when, in an address to Congress, the then-Secretary of State declared that: "[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace."
"If the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity," explained Adams. "She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."
The cynicism of the previous administration, which was led by a president whose family pulled strings to keep him out of the Vietnam War and a vice president who dodged the draft five times during that conflict, was beyond contempt. But so, too, is the cynicism of many Democrats who, despite their disdain for the failed foreign policies of Bush and Cheney, continue to echo the empty rhetoric of the administration when it comes to the debate about how best to end the war.
The best way to "support the troops" who have been placed in harm's way in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is to bring them home.
Congress considered the prospect last week and more than 200 members of the House voted for a proposal to begin taking steps to exit Afghanistan. Unfortunately, a few more members opposed that necessary step.
The growing opposition to the misguided mission in Afghanistan, as well as the clear opposition to any expansion of the Libya mission, is the encouraging news of this Memorial Day.
America is growing weary of endless war.
Wars of whim, fought without proper congressional declaration and without exit strategies, are not fights for democracy.
Fights for democracy can only be considered successful when American democracy is open and vibrant enough to allow for a realistic discussion of the nation's circumstance. Those "my-country-right-or-wrong" politicians and pundits who would shut down dissent on Memorial Day, or any other day, make a mockery of the oath to defend a constitution that protects the right to speak truth to power and to assemble for the purpose of petitioning for the redress of grievances.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's Vietnam War-era counsel to Americans holds true this Memorial Day.
Americans who love their country and its promise must move beyond "the prophesying of smooth patriotism" toward "a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history."
No honest reading of the history of America's founding, or of recent events, can led to a conclusion that the undeclared wars of the moment are justified.
Americans have fought and died in pursuit of what they -- and most Americans -- believed to be noble and necessary causes. It is right to celebrate their memory. But is right, as well, to recognize that not all wars are noble and necessary.
Making the distinction between wars that are unavoidable and wars that should have been avoided (and that can now be ended) honors all veterans and all soldiers, as does a recognition that it is time to begin establishing practices and policies that err on the side of making peace -- as opposed to endless conflict.
That's a message that Michael McPhearson, the former executive director of Veterans for Peace and a co-convener of United for Peace and Justice brings to the table this Memorial Day.
"To truly honor fallen soldiers requires self-reflection, questions and action," says the veteran who served as a field artillery officer in the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the first Gulf War. "We must reflect on our part in their deaths. Are we allowing the blood of soldiers and civilians to be spilled in war because we are not willing to do the hard work of peace making? Hard work that may mean we must change our lifestyles, consume less and learn more about the world around us. Are we prepared to take any responsibility for our nation’s relationships with other countries? Are we willing to question our government's foreign policies and demand a change from domination to collaboration? Are we willing to take action to change ourselves so that our personal behavior and attitude reflects peace making rather than acceptance of war?"
Americans will have plenty of answers to those questions. But the first ought to be that, on this Memorial Day, the time has come to honor the troops by bringing them home.
© 2011 The Nation
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. Nichols' other books include: Dick: The Man Who is President and The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism.
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